National Geographic’s nature docuseries Hostile Planet may have had the misfortune of premiering at roughly the same time as Netflix’s mega-budgeted Our Planet, but the smaller of the two still has plenty to offer, starting with a premise that aims to amaze viewers by diving deep into the resilience of the natural world. By traipsing around the globe with TV host/adventurer Bear Grylls, the six-episode series explored mountains, oceans, grasslands, jungles, deserts, and in the finale it ventures to perhaps the harshest climate on the planet: the polar region.
In the aptly tilted ‘Polar,’ Hostile Planet bounces back and forth between the two poles, visiting the arctic and Antarctica, while also documenting animals somehow surviving in incredibly unforgiving environs, like Hudson Bay, Canada and Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. The series also stops by Svalbard, Norway to look in on some free-ranging polar bears and see how conditions there differ from those of their species living in the Canadian region. In this regard, the series lives up to its title, illustrating the daily life-and-death struggle of every creature capable of living in a part of the world that is actively…well, hostile.
As expected, Hostile Planet checks the various boxes of most nature documentaries, albeit with more of an emphasis on the aforementioned life-and-death struggle. Two separate segments look at different groups of penguins, emperor and gentoo, as they brave unbearable cold and the usual list of sea-faring predators all in an effort to fulfill their genetic destiny to propagate and see the circle of life continue on and on. The result is footage that’s been seen before — especially in documentaries like March of the Penguins or Disney’s new theatrical release Penguins, which came out under the Disneynature single — but is still somehow as captivating as ever.
Watching male emperor penguins huddle en masse against staggeringly cold temperatures, while keeping eggs and eventually newborn chicks warm and safe is something audiences will never tire of seeing, it seems. The same goes for the inevitable chase sequence wherein prey evades a predator, despite the odds of their survival being incredibly slim. In ‘Polar,’ the sequence features a gentoo penguin, separated from the rest of the group by a patch of ice, being pursued by a leopard seal. At one point the seal has the bird dead to rights, and toys with its meal instead of feasting. The decision proves costly as circumstances shift, allowing the penguin to escape, resulting in the wildlife equivalent of a football player showboating on the one-yard line and being denied the touchdown.
Other parts of the finale aren’t quite as forgiving when it comes to showing the harsh realities of how some predator/prey dynamics play out. One particular graphic scene involves a pack of arctic wolves capitalizing on a musk ox’s maternal instinct, taking down a large female after she was separated from the herd when her calf fell prey to the wolves. It’s a harrowing sequence that’s difficult to watch, even with the knowledge that the scenario must play out if both species are to survive.
Where the series takes some necessary steps forward is in pointing the finger at the even harsher realties of climate change, and how warming temperatures, shorter winters, and less ice is not just altering the landscape but drastically impacting the way many of these animals live. A significant portion of ‘Polar’ is dedicated to the struggle facing polar bears, as a delay in the forming of sea ice prevents them from hunting and feeding. The delay is weeks in length and is only getting longer, meaning the bears are at risk of starvation if things don’t change.
But while it’s commendable that Hostile Planet would address the issue of climate change and the devastating impact it is having on nature and its many denizens, the series ultimately doesn’t go far enough. That is true in terms of pointing the finger at humankind’s role in altering the climate and in terms of illustrating just how disastrous the situation ultimately is. Instead, the series mostly sidesteps any discussion of the causes of climate change and therefore misses an opportunity to discuss what needs to be done in order to combat it and prevent further damage. Additionally, Hostile Planet ends with a half-hearted hope that the wildlife will find ways to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, which is tantamount to offering “thoughts and prayers” instead of taking action.
That is understandably a difficult line to walk for a television series that must be as entertaining as it is educational. And while Hostile Planet delivers on both accounts, taking a firmer stance on climate change and its inevitable perils would have seen the series elevated above its many peers.
Hostile Planet season 1 is available to stream on Hulu.